The Marathon des Sables expo On year on from the Marathon des Sables, contributing Ed Jody returns to the scene of the ultra crime as he attends the MdS expo...
Thursday 25 October 2012
When I decided I wanted to run the Marathon des Sables (MdS) four years ago I thought it would be the challenge of my life and I would never need set one foot in front of another in anger again. Oh, what a foolish young scamp I was then.
An ultra or two later, I’m now sure you should never return to the scene of the crime. Only race fetishists do such a thing. Yet if there was ever to be a race to draw all your obsession, what better than the seven-day, 150 mile self-sufficient race through the desert that is the MdS?
Last weekend, the Marathon des Sables organisers put on their first ever official MdS Expo in the UK featuring talks and seminars from experts on everything from lightweight kit to nutrition and motivation to training advice. Everything was laid on to confuse and delight the future competitor... as well as pull on the heartstrings of those who had already run it and wanted to go back. This was MdS porn, pure and simple.
A few years ago, support for runners on the MdS was basic. The most support you could look forward to was a couple of very basic fora on the internet and the hope you’d stumble across others who had variously competed in the event in the past in the hope they may throw you a nugget or two around interesting tidbits such as how much toilet paper to take into the desert or the best type of venom pump to buy.
In all seriousness, connecting with previous MdS runners wasn’t the easiest of tasks. We’re not talking about the London Marathon here; the totality of people who have actually run the race is only around 12,000 - a tiny number over the race’s 27 year history, so making available to future competitors just some of the knowledge and experience of those who had already run it is invaluable.
The man around which the Marathon des Sables gravitates is founder Patrick Bauer, a former French Legionnaire who, in a wonderfully Gallic pique of romanticism decided to trek 200 miles across the western Sahara after the journey came to him in a dream. Unlike other races, it means Bauer’s journey and his love of the desert are inextricably tied up with the race which aims to share that very first challenge. “Someone didn't come up and say, here's some money let's go and start a race, it started from my passion and him doing it for the first time,” he said.
Introducing the day, Bauer shared footage of his voyage across the sands almost 30 years ago. Despite the advance of technology and logistics that helps the 1,500 strong camp set up and move every night of the race that has expanded from just 26 runners in its first year to almost 1,000 this year, he sees himself as protector, a guardian no less, of ‘l’esprit’ or the spirit of the race.
“More important than what has changed is what hasn't changed,” Bauer says. “The most important thing that hasn't changed are the basic fundamentals and values of the race. What you experience is pretty much what I experienced when I ran the first one.”
Preparation and passion
It is no coincidence there was a major emphasis on footcare, hydration and preparation by the organisers of the Expo, as proportionally UK entrants are less likely to have prepared and are more likely to have problems because of that, Bauer said.
“One of the reasons we have brought Fred [Compagnon of race medical organisation Doc Trotters] over is to increase preparedness. The greatest chance of success is to reduce the pain and increase the chance you are going to enjoy it,” he said.
But Bauer explained the Brits add an important dimension to the already international race that features runners from 50 countries : “Running the Marathon des Sables is a decision made from the heart, not the head. It's not a right-minded thing to do, but people don't do it because they think about it. What is great about the UK contingent is they have a passion that extends way beyond any other country.”
More important than the technical elements an expo can deliver in one fell swoop is the opportunity to meet and talk about the challenge ahead with others in your shoes. The nervous anticipation of entering a whole world of unknown is made easier in the knowledge that you’re not completely alone. It also offers an opportunity for former competitors to get together and trade war stories, bleat on about how it changed their lives and wallow in a longing to doing it all again. Of course, when I say ‘previous competitors’, I mean ‘me’.
Motivation is everything
The Expo’s piece de resistance came from the marvellous Sir Ranulph Fiennes, as the world’s greatest living explorer offered advice on the subject of motivation. In his 38 years of exploring, he revealed that determining someone’s motivation was key to selecting the right individuals for his team.
“If I was looking for someone to take along, I wouldn't give them 1 out of 10 on their characteristics or anything complex like that, I would go for their motivation,” he said. “How a person is motivated is how they behave for themselves and therefore for their expedition group.”
Skipping over his numerous achievements as if they were weekend breaks, Fiennes’ constantly came back to the issue of character among those taking on extreme endurance challenges, as he explained: “When they are suffering physically and their mental willpower comes in they need to fight the wimpish voice in their head with some mental ammunition they have prepared to be ready for the fact that this nasty voice is going to ask them to stop, because they've got crutch rot and gangrene and their fillings are falling out!”
And for anyone in doubt about whether they had the necessary talent, knowledge or expertise to take on what has been dubbed as “the world’s toughest footrace”, Fiennes added that none of this mattered if you have the correct mindset. “You can’t change characters, you can teach skills,” he said.